May 11, 2010

British Astronaut Gets Ready Space Flight

Astronaut candidate Tim Peake is on his way to becoming the first U.K. citizen to be admitted into the European Space Agency's (ESA) Astronaut Corps.

Peake's training will get him ready to fly to the International Space Station (ISS).

"We had a number of very important tasks to do, but at each stage there was also a lot of laughter because it was so much fun," Peake told BBC News.

The former British Army helicopter pilot took a parabolic flight that allowed him to float free in the cabin of a jet plane as it flew a series of parabolic loops to simulate the weightlessness experienced in orbit.

Peake took the flight with ESA's other astronaut rookies - Samantha Cristoforetti, Alexander Gerst, Adreas Morgensen, Luca Parmitano, Thomas Pesquet.

This was the group's first microgravity, or "zero-g," flight on an Airbus A300, which operates from Bordeaux airport, France.

The jet makes a series of steep climbs and when the pilot throttles back near the top of the arc, anything not strapped down in the cabin begins to float free.  Each parabola gives about 20 seconds of weightlessness.

"You teach the astronauts how to move in microgravity," Dr Gail Iles, an ESA instructor on the flight, told BBC. "For example, when you throw a container in these conditions, you will move backwards because you have an opposite reaction. They learn how to deal with that."

The rookies tried out the whole-body actions they would need to make to maneuver themselves from module to module inside the ISS.  They also tested a new treadmill made for the space station.

"That was a novel experience because it was on its side and your running position actually faced the roof of the aircraft," Peake told BBC.

"Initially, it felt a bit bizarre in normal flight and as you were doing the pull-ups; but once you were in zero-g and you started running, everything was completely normal."

Five of the six astronauts are pilots by trade and the majority of them have extensive experience in fighter jets.  However, Peake said that experience had little bearing on the sensation he felt on the microgravity jet.

"It's genuinely a unique sensation; you don't get that in any aircraft where you are strapped in. And in fact, we all had the opportunity to go up to the cockpit where you are strapped in, and that was completely benign compared to being in the back of the aircraft. It doesn't compare at all to the maneuvers in fighters or helicopters."

ESA is ready to get one of its rookies into space as soon as possible, however the first opportunity will not come before 2013 or 2014.

With NASA retiring its space shuttle program at the end of this year, the only transportation left to get to the ISS is through a Russian Soyuz vehicle.  Its smaller size will restrict the number of flight opportunities for all the world's astronauts.

The U.S. hopes to eventually introduce a commercial system that would taxi astronauts to and from the ISS.  These new rockets and capsules will be ready to go in a few years.


Image Caption: ESA astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Andreas Mogensen and Tim Peake during a parabolic flight on Friday May 7, 2010. Credit ESA - A. Le Floc'h


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